No part of the immigration reform debate is more misunderstood than the issue of those who have overstayed visas.
Critics of the Senate Gang of Eight's proposal say little has been done since the 9/11 terrorist attacks to plug a loophole that has allowed millions to remain in the United States illegally. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said recently that despite a 1996 law that requires an "entry-exit" system to catch overstayers, "the exit system is nonfunctional."
In fact, the number of visa overstays has plummeted in the past decade as successive administrations have made real progress in tightening the visa system. The additional requirement in the Senate bill for fully electronic exit at all airports and seaports within five years is a sensible addition to solving a chronic problem that is gradually being brought under control.
Temporary visas are issued for many purposes, but all require that a foreign tourist, student or other visa holder return home when the duration of his or her lawful visit expires. Historically, however, the United States has never known whether visa holders actually left, and many did not.
Demographer Robert Warren estimated in 1997 that visa overstays were then 41 percent of the total overall unauthorized population. But Warren recently updated those estimates, and they show a big decline. Since 2000, the number of new overstays each year has dropped by 78 percent in the biggest states; in 2009, only three states (Florida, California and Texas) added more than 10,000 visa overstayers.